› Where: La Altena Mexican Restaurant, 314 West Main St.
› Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
› Price range: $1.99 for rice or beans to $19.99 for Fajitas Guadalajara for two
› Alcohol: Full bar service
› Phone: 423-266-7595
› Website: laaltenamexicanrestaurant.com
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of reviews featuring our staff's favorite places to dine. They are either go-to spots we frequent for good service and conversation, the favorite dishes we order over and over or the one-of-a-kind Chattanooga restaurants that make us love our Scenic City that much more.
For some of Chattanooga's newer or younger residents, it may come as a surprise that Chattanooga's Southside wasn't always the hip and happening place it is today. Not too long ago, the Main Street corridor near Market and Broad streets was filled with industrial businesses, a relatively sedate version of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, the old faithful that is Zarzour's Cafe, some empty storefronts and not much more. Certainly not the plethora of restaurants, bars and venues that now make the Southside the new place to be.
But for more than 20 years, there has been a place where good, authentic Mexican food and a diverse mix of customers have come together for a good meal and a good price in a simple, inviting atmosphere. That place is La Altena Mexican Restaurant near the corner of Main and Broad streets.
As someone who has lived off Main Street since 1997, I've had a front-row seat for the transformation of the Southside. It's been an amazing thing to witness, and the changes (except for traffic and parking) have been mostly for the best. But La Altena was my first experience with dining on Main Street and it remains one of my favorite places when I want a good, reasonably priced meal near home.
La Altena is a simple space between Urban Lawn and a Hispanic meat market. It's jammed with booths and tables to serve as many hungry customers as possible. The decor is simple but comfortable, and there are a few booths on the sidewalk for dining outside.
The kitchen area is near the door, so guests can see (and smell) the good food that has made the restaurant popular for so long.
In recent years, the owners of La Altena expanded and added new restroom facilities to improve the dining experience, but the restaurant still has the comfortable, worn-in feel that is part of its charm.
The basic menu for Mexican restaurants is pretty standard, and La Altena doesn't disappoint customers wanting basic tacos, burritos and fajitas.
However, if you dig deeper or feel adventurous, there are some interesting items that go beyond basic Hispanic cuisine that most Americans are familiar with. Dishes like Mama's Authentic Chicken Mole, Pollo a la Tampiquena and Bistec a la Mexicana allow customers to try something a bit different if they feel like branching out.
The menu offerings are extensive, so there should be something for everyone. That's probably why La Altena has been a favorite for a diverse group of customers for so long.
Each meal at La Altena starts with chips and salsa, and the salsa is clearly fresh and homemade. There is a second, spicier salsa that can be requested as well, and one needs to be careful not to eat too many chips before ordering the main course.
There are two to three specials posted on the wall every day. For a mid-week meal, I chose the special of two Mexico City-style tacos filled with pork and served with refried beans and a side of Mexican rice. At $5.99, the price was hard to beat (and I'd already eaten my share of chips and salsa, so I didn't need more than two tacos).
The smaller soft tacos were served on corn tortillas (flour tortillas are also available) and arrived hot and fresh. There was just the right amount of food, and once again I was happy with my choice of dinner at La Altena.
La Altena is a family-owned business, and the front-of-the-house staff knows their business as well as many of their customers on sight.
After patronizing the restaurant for many years, I usually know my servers, and they usually recognize me and say hello when they see me. My most recent visit was no exception. That friendly service is part of what makes La Altena so special and still an important part of the Southside scene after all these years.
One of my first experiences of dining on the Southside (outside of the Choo Choo) was at La Altena. From my first visit until now, the service has been wonderful, the food has been great and the price has been right.
When out-of-town friends visit Chattanooga, it's fun to take them to the newer and more hip places in town. But sometimes, you want to have good food with friendly service. At times like that, it's hard to go wrong with a visit to La Altena.
Contact Jim Tanner at JFTanner@gmail.com. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.